Usually, it was the servant’s bell that would wake Alice. At six o’clock, she would be jolted awake by the incessant ting-ting-ting from the old brass bell in one corner of her bed chamber – a bell operated by Mr Denbigh down in the scullery, linked to Alice’s bedroom by a complex network of ropes and pulleys that snaked through every last room in the castle.
Usually, but not today.
Today it was a voice that woke Alice, a woman’s voice she did not recognize.
“Tom?” the voice said. “Help me with this, would you?”
Alice sat up in bed and looked around; the room was empty, with daylight streaming in through the cracks in the curtains. Who on earth is Tom? Alice wondered. And who was that woman? After a moment’s consideration, Alice, being sensible, had her answer; both Tom and the woman were simply echoes of a lucid but fast fading dream. There. Mystery solved.
Now the servant’s bell rang. Alice washed and dressed herself and went down to the scullery to report to Mr Denbigh. She was the first of the staff to arrive, as was the case most days. Alice’s punctuality was something for which Mr Denbigh was eternally grateful, and though the other servants saw him as a gruff, curmudgeonly old man – ‘Old Growler’, they called him, on account of his habit of growling softly under his breath to signal any kind of displeasure – Alice only ever saw his kindly side. This was because Mr Denbigh was only ever kind to the very best and most dedicated of his staff. The others seemed unaware of this, and it suited Alice to keep it that way; the collective envy and resentment that would otherwise be brought down upon her just didn’t bear thinking about.
Once the nineteen other scullery maids, housemaids (of which Alice was one), cooks and footmen had toddled in, all in varying states of wakefulness, Mr Denbigh commenced his briefing.
“As you know,” he said, “Lord Fairfax is a Navy man, or he used to be. Served alongside Nelson in that hellish to-do with Napoleon a few years ago. Although recently retired, he still maintains ties with the Admiralty, and even consults for them occasionally on Naval matters. Likes to keep his oar in, so to speak.”
Mr Denbigh paused, a self-satisfied smile playing on his lips. His eyes scoured the faces of the servants, looking for some faint trace of amusement at his clever little pun, and when none was forthcoming, he muttered: “Bloody humourless, the lot of you.”
“I got it, sir!” Alice piped up.
“Then why didn’t you laugh, woman?”
“Because it wasn’t funny, sir.”
At this, some of the newer maids took sharp intakes of breath and covered their mouths. Alice must be mad!
Mr Denbigh regarded Alice with apparent indignation and said sternly: “Alice? See me afterwards, you hear?”
That’s it, the newer maids thought. Foolish woman’s gone and talked herself out of a job. With no husband, and at her age too! She’ll be begging or whoring herself down in Birchester before the week is out…
But the newer maids had missed the gleeful twinkle in the eyes of both Alice and Mr Denbigh.
“Anyhow,” Mr Denbigh continued, “the long and the short of it is, at seven o’clock this evening we shall have precisely twenty-seven Admiralty mouths to feed, and Lord Fairfax is keen to give them a feast they’ll never forget. After all, as we know, Fairfax Castle is renowned for two things; its lack of ghosts, and the quality of its grub. Any questions?”
Perhaps emboldened by Alice’s earlier comments, one of the younger maids hesitantly raised a hand.
“Is there really no ghosts here, sir? None at all?”
“None whatsoever,” Mr Denbigh said. “Lord Fairfax simply won’t tolerate them, nor any mention of them. He’s what they call a sceptic, you see. Headless horsemen and grey ladies and so on… all bunk in the view of his Lordship, and if you wish to remain in his employ, I strongly advise you not to start any rumours along those lines.”
“But begging your pardon, sir…” Emily persisted. “Every castle has ghosts.”
Mr Denbigh shook his head decisively. “Not this one, I tell you. And there’s a damned good reason for it too. By some chance quirk of historical fate, not a soul ever died here. Not one.” There were mutterings of disbelief from the staff. “If you doubt my words, consult the library records – in your own time I hasten to add – and you shall see I speak the truth; in four and a half centuries, every last death in the Fairfax family has occurred elsewhere, either abroad in some foreign land, or in some other house or castle. Nor has any guest or servant ever died here either. Perhaps one day fate will see to a change in such happy circumstances, but until that day, Fairfax Castle is blessed, not cursed.” Having examined the faces of each one of his staff as he spoke, Mr Denbigh’s eyes now settled on young Emily once again. “I take it that settles the matter?”
“Oh, yes indeed sir,” said Emily, apparently chastened.
“Now,” Mr Denbigh said curtly. “You all know your jobs, so let’s do the Admiralty proud. Get to it.”
The staff began to disperse – all except Alice, who lingered behind. It suited her to keep up the pretence that she was in some sort of trouble with Mr Denbigh.
“You wished to see me, sir,” she said coyly, twirling a curly blonde lock with her finger.
“What? Oh.” Mr Denbigh waited until the other staff were out of earshot. Then he smiled faintly – was there even a glimmer of fondness in the old man’s eyes? – and said: “Never mind about that. Get along now, Alice. Lots to be done.”
“Yes, sir.” Alice turned to leave, but then a thought occurred to her. “Mr Denbigh? Do we have a Tom working here?”
“Tom? No, never had a Tom. Why do you ask?”
Alice shrugged. “Oh, no reason.”
Mr Denbigh looked flummoxed, but he was already somewhat pre-occupied with preparing his calligraphy tools for the menus. Alice left him with his quills and inkpots and shuffled out of the scullery. In the corridor up ahead, she could hear Emily saying: “I don’t believe it. Every castle has ghosts.”
All that morning and afternoon, Alice busied herself collecting various ornamental items – candelabras, carpets, rugs and tablecloths – from the storage room in the east wing corridor, the same corridor that led to her own bed chamber. These items were to be arranged in the dining hall downstairs for the guests. Passing back and forth from the east wing meant ascending and descending various staircases, and with heavy rugs and large metal candlesticks to carry, the work was exhausting.
The frontage of Fairfax Castle, the western end, was situated atop a hill whose gentle slopes descended onto and gradually mingled with the winding streets of Birchester village. By contrast, the east wing lay at the rear of the castle on a high promontory overlooking a wooded valley far below. This meant that certain windows gave onto a sheer two hundred foot drop, and such vistas were quite dizzying to behold.
Now, as Alice paused for breath by one of these high corridor windows, she gazed out over the treetops as they swayed in the wind, and she felt a very slight rush of vertigo that made her head swim. Already light-headed from the exercise, it made her unsteady on her feet, so she sat on one of the seats hewn from the stone walls of the corridor.
And there, from somewhere in the middle of the empty corridor, directly in front of her it seemed, she heard a man’s voice say: “This is it.”
Startled, Alice stood and called out “Hello?” The reply came back instantly: “It’s here.” The same deep male voice again.
Alice looked up and down the corridor – still perfectly empty. Feeling quite foolish, she whispered hesitantly: “Is that you, Tom?” This time there was no reply. Alice hurried off down the corridor and back down the stairs to the dining hall, and only then, in the company of other maids and servants going about their business, did she feel once more at ease. Though her instinct was to tell them all what she had just heard, Alice suppressed the urge. She had her reputation to think of.
That evening at around half past six, the inhabitants of Birchester were faintly amused (though not altogether surprised) to see a long parade of horse-drawn carriages – in the new, exclusive style known as ‘Barouche-Landau’, all with the King’s coat of arms painted on their sides – passing through the village and up the gently sloping path that led to the castle gates. Flaming torches had been set alight in the castle grounds to welcome the visitors, and now the drivers brought their horses to a halt and hopped down onto the gravel to open the doors for their esteemed passengers;tall, imposing men with bristling moustaches and top hats. The Admiralty had descended on Fairfax Castle.
In the dining hall, they were treated to an elaborate eight course supper; soup, fish, lamb shanks, the very best wine, vegetables grown in the castle grounds and picked that very morning, a fine selection of cheeses, a towering, wobbling, gelatinous dessert, followed by coffee, port and cigars. Mr Denbigh and his staff had indeed ‘done them proud’, and, as they came to clear away the last round of plates, they were duly rewarded with a hearty ‘three cheers’ by the Admiralty men. At the head of the long table, Lord Fairfax sat contentedly, puffing away on an excellent cigar as he exchanged war talk and governmental gossip with his guests.
When the third round of port had been distributed and consumed, one of the Admiralty men – the one with the tallest top hat and the most immaculately trimmed moustache – clicked his fingers, and at once his personal valet appeared carrying a large framed painting. This, the man announced to the room – and to Lord Fairfax in particular – was the Admiralty’s gift to its generous host. The painting, the man explained, depicted Francis Drake’s ships at sea, in fierce battle with the Spanish Armada over two hundred years ago. It had been painted just three days after the Spanish invasion fleet had been successfully repelled, and presented to Queen Elizabeth as a gift by the painter – a man whom Lord Fairfax had never heard of, but that was all by the by because the painting itself, the man assured him, was extremely valuable. Lord Fairfax thanked his guest most humbly, and summoned Mr Denbigh, who took the painting away out of sight with the utmost care.
Alice was exhausted after the day’s events, which stretched on interminably into the small hours, so it was quite a source of misery to her to realise, at around three o’clock in the morning, that she was unable to sleep. Despite her exhaustion, it was fear that kept her awake. Not fear derived from those mysterious voices with their random, meaningless statements. Since going to bed she had not heard a single one. It wasn’t hearing the voices that kept Alice awake and terrified; it was the awful prospect that, at any moment, she might.
Just as Alice was finally, blissfully drifting off, the servant’s bell rang. The harsh, incessant ting-ting-ting seemed to set her very bones chattering, so dreadful was the noise. Daylight was once again bleeding into the room through the curtains. No rest for the wicked, she thought, and then felt a pang of injustice as she realised she was not wicked in the slightest.
She forced herself out of bed and went to the bath to start the taps running. And just then, from somewhere behind and below her, somewhere very close, a child’s voice said: “That bath is tiny!”
Alice jumped and spun around, all fatigue gone in an instant as pure adrenaline coursed through her veins at lightning speed. There was no-one there of course, and yet somehow, in a vague indefinable way, there was.
She left the taps running and went to the dressing room mirror to examine herself, and though she hadn’t yet bathed she instinctively picked up her hairbrush.
“Don’t touch that!” It was a woman’s voice this time, a grown woman, but not, she was sure, the same woman who had asked ‘Tom’ for help. The voice came with such harsh authority that Alice couldn’t help but immediately set the hairbrush back down again.
God help me, she thought. I’m going mad.
Still in her dressing gown, Alice opened the bedroom door and went out into the corridor. Might she feel more alone out here? Less watched? Less preyed upon? For a moment she did feel alone out in the cold, draughty corridor, but the illusion was soon shattered by the sound of music – music of a kind she’d never heard before – coming from somewhere very nearby. And then it stopped and a man said “Hello?”
“Hello?” Alice replied, looking everywhere for the source of the voice but failing to find it. “Is that you Tom? Are you… are you a ghost?” There was no answer this time, but still, somehow, she felt far from alone. Alice fled down the corridor, her loose dressing gown flapping at her heels. She was barefoot, and the staircase flagstones were cold to the touch as she hurried down them, wanting to be anywhere but in the east wing. The voices, she now realized, were concentrated there.
Finally she came to the scullery, where Mr Denbigh and three housemaids were already assembled. As Alice walked in they all stared at her in astonishment.
“Alice!” Mr Denbigh gasped. “The state of you!”
“I’m sorry, Mr Denbigh,” Alice stammered, suddenly feeling exposed and foolish. “I just had a… a bit of a fright, that’s all.”
“A fright? My poor child, what on earth do you mean?”
“Nothing sir, it’s just… well it must’ve been the… the children, I suppose.”
“Children? What children?”
“The children of the…” Her voice tailed off. Even as she said the words she realised how impossible they must sound, then persisted anyway. “The children of the Admiralty men.”
Mr Denbigh guffawed, which in turn gave two of the three housemaids permission to snigger into their sleeves.
“My dear,” Mr Denbigh said, “These are Admiralty men on Admiralty business. I can assure you none of them would bring their little ones along with them! Besides, they all left early this morning while you were still… attempting to dress yourself.”
Alice felt her cheeks grow hot with embarrassment. She began to cry. Mr Denbigh took pity on her and dismissed the others.
“I must say I’m rather worried about you, Alice. Is everything alright?”
“Mr Denbigh… are you quite sure there’s no ghosts here?”
Mr Denbigh’s face hardened. “I shall pretend I didn’t hear that, for your sake. My god! If Lord Fairfax were to hear such a thing…”
Alice nodded, straightened and stood upright. She knew the consequences all too well. “Sorry Mr Denbigh, I’m just so very tired.”
“Yes, well… I’ll overlook it this once. Now go and make yourself presentable.”
Alice was on her way out when Mr Denbigh said: “Oh, Alice? I almost forgot. Seeing as you’re heading up there anyway…”
From under the table, handling it very gingerly, Mr Denbigh brought out the painting of the Spanish and English ships doing battle. “Lord Fairfax wants this up in the east wing corridor. Hang it for us, would you? And do be careful, it’s rather valuable. I was going to give it to one of the other girls but… well, let’s just say this is one task that requires a safe pair of hands.”
“Oh, Mr Denbigh!” At once Alice felt the exhaustion and the fear and the embarrassment all evaporate, and in their place her senses were flooded with relief and gratitude – gratitude that, even in her dreadful impoverished state, Mr Denbigh still trusted her, still valued her, still needed her. She felt inclined to display her gratitude by way of an embrace, but immediately thought better of it.
“Find a good spot for it, won’t you?”
“I will, sir. Thank you, Mr Denbigh. Thank you ever so much. For everything.”
With mounting trepidation, Alice carried the painting up the stairs that led to the east wing. On the top step she hesitated, listening out for the voices, but she could hear nothing. She took a deep breath and crossed the threshold marked by one end of a deep burgundy carpet that ran the entire length of the corridor. And the very moment she did so, she felt herself surrounded. The corridor was empty, and yet as busy as she had ever known it. Voices sang and laughed and chattered and moaned all around her – an unbearable cacophony. Men, women, children, all brushing past her, rubbing shoulders with her, and even on occasion passing right through her, though she could still not see them. The jarring dissonance between what her eyes were telling her – that there was simply no-one there – and what all her other senses combined were signalling, was overwhelming, nauseating.
Alice tried in vain to ignore the constant chattering as she looked for a spot to hang the painting. She could not concentrate and set the painting down, propping it diagonally between the floor and the corridor wall.
“Is it here?” a child’s voice said.
“Yes darling,” a woman – the child’s mother? – replied. “It’s here.”
“Are we all here now?” another woman enquired, and Alice thought she recognized her as the woman who had called out to the mysterious ‘Tom’. Tom was probably here now too. They all were. Alice sank to her knees, leant back against the wall and clasped her hands over her ears, but it was no use; they were all so loud, so close.
“Go away, all of you!” Alice screamed, but the chatter only seemed to intensify. She got to her feet and started to run back the way she had come. She was still barefoot, and the hem of her dressing gown flapped around her ankles ever more loosely, until finally she tripped on the hem and stumbled forwards. She put her other foot out in front to steady herself, and at that moment she heard an awful tearing noise.
Looking down, Alice saw to her horror that she had stumbled over – no, through – the painting that she had left propped up against the wall. Where once there had been an Elizabethan navy frigate with cannons blazing, there was now a gaping hole in the parchment, filled only by Alice’s bare ankle. She gingerly extricated herself from her predicament, tearing the parchment still further as she stepped out of the painting, and sank to her knees. Even Mr Denbigh – good, kind, Mr Denbigh – would not forgive her for this. And nor should he. It was unforgivable.
And then the music began – the same music she had heard before – a distorted, atonal, eerie and yet jaunty kind of music that set her nerves jangling. It was the devil’s music, she was sure, hideous and incessant, driving itself into her very being like a nail being hammered into wood, and a perversely child-like voice singing…
“I’m a Barbie girl… in a Barbie world.”
“Stop!” Alice sobbed.
“Life in plastic… it’s fantastic.”
The music ceased abruptly, and a man’s voice said: “Sorry.” There was laughter from the other voices, and then silence.
Alice breathed slowly in and out, trying desperately to calm herself, but before she could do so the silence was broken again, this time by a single voice that came clear and loud out of the ether. It was the voice of the woman who had called to Tom. The woman said: “As I was saying, this is rumoured to be the spot where Alice broke the painting.”
“I’m sorry,” Alice whispered through her tears, not wondering or caring about who she was apologizing to, or why. “I’m so sorry.”
“It hangs here to this day, unrepaired, as a tribute to her memory.”
“I can fix it!” Alice sobbed. “Please… let me fix it.”
“You see, Alice was a very dedicated servant. Something like that would’ve plagued her with guilt, perhaps to the point where… well…”
“Let me try and fix it,” Alice pleaded again.
Now a man’s voice – the man who had said ‘sorry’ – said: “I heard she was schizophrenic. The voices drove her to it.”
Alice had never heard the word ‘schizophrenic’. She had no idea what it meant, and anyway what did he mean by ‘drove her to it’?
“To what?” she shouted. “Drove me to what?!”
“Well, there are lots of theories,” the woman was saying. “All we know for sure is that she took her own life on the same day she broke the painting.”
Alice was shaking her head and saying “No…no…”, because her body was now operating independently of her mind. She was already on her feet. The compulsion was overwhelming, elemental, unstoppable.
“This is the highest point in the castle,” the woman said. “It’s a two hundred foot drop. She never would’ve stood a chance.”
“I won’t do it,” Alice said firmly, even as she pushed the window open and stood outside on the ledge. The wind hit her and made her dressing gown billow. “I won’t!”
But then the music began again. “Come on Barbie, let’s go party.”
Alice whispered: “It’s fantastic.”
Then the music stopped. “Sorry,” said the man.
And as Alice stepped off the window ledge and out into the void, the last thing she heard was a polite smattering of laughter.
Philip Miles asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work